Last week brought some seemingly good news for Turkey’s long moribund effort to join the European Union. At a joint press conference in Berlin with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “The EU is an honest negotiating partner” and that Brussels would pursue Turkey’s membership in “good faith.” In a way, there was reason for Turks to celebrate Merkel’s forward leaning statements. Both she and former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, have been the most vocal and public proponents of what they call a “privileged partnership” for Turkey in lieu of full EU membership, which is a nice way of saying the status quo. Merkel’s willingness to energize the accession process is no doubt more apparent than real, however. European opposition to Turkey’s membership in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs is pretty wide and deep even among European leaders who give lip service to the notion.
It goes without saying that Turkey isn’t ready for EU membership. Ankara still needs to address a host of political problems including human rights issues, freedom of the press, the quality of the judicial system, and the generalized backsliding on the ambitious democratic reforms the Justice and Development Party began in 2003. There is also, of course, the state of relations between the Republic of Cyprus–an EU member–and Turkey, which has tens of thousands of troops on the island protecting the orphaned and illegitimate Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Resolving these issues will be daunting and require political leadership, but one can imagine ways in which they can be solved.
No, the problems with Turkey’s EU membership are not technical-political-foreign policy related, but rather are directly related to the Europeans’ fundamental inability to agree on what “Europe” is and what it means to be “European.” If the EU is geographic, co-terminus with predominantly Christian countries, Turkey’s bid for membership continues only because Brussels doesn’t want to be tagged as anti-Muslim and the Turks don’t want to let the Europeans off the hook for promises that were made to the Turks about integration with Europe dating as far back as the 1964 Ankara Agreement. If, however, Europe is based on a set of common ideas, norms, and principles about rule of law, transparency, tolerance, and consensual politics then Turkey could clearly be an EU member one day.
My sense is that when a lot of Europeans pull their covers up at night, they regard the European Union in geographic terms and recoil at the idea that Europe could one day border Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Moreover, imagine your average Frenchman or German who think of themselves and their countries as the most important members of the largest economic bloc in the world. It must be jarring that one day they may wake up to find that 75 million Turks have joined the Union and now have the largest representation in the European parliament, the biggest military, and most dynamic economy in Europe. That thought can’t sit well and Turkey’s membership is clearly political freight European chauvinism is not likely to bear any time soon.
Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Erdogan have clearly decided to let Turkey’s minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, continue burning jet fuel in his quixotic mission rather than let some of these well-known, but rarely spoken ugly truths out in the open.